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Getting up steam to eat better: Stanford scientists find what works

stealth-broccoliWhen I interviewed varsity rower Meredith Fischer for a recent Stanford Medicine magazine feature, I couldn't wait to hear what had motivated her to radically change her diet. For years, eating meat was a huge part of Fischer's identity. Her childhood nickname, "Meef," stuck because it rhymed with beef, one of her favorite foods, and she was used to eating large servings of meat to help fuel her athletic performance. But since taking a Stanford class on "Food and Society" more than a year ago, she's been a vegetarian.

My curiosity stemmed from the fact that I had been a varsity athlete myself and could distinctly remember how hungry my intense workout schedule left me. Back in the day, my athletic diet plan was basically "say yes to everything." Giant portions of meat-and-cheese lasagna? Yes. Deep-fried samosas, then some gelato? Sign me up. A Saturday-night excursion for huge helpings of french fries, followed by slices of cheesecake? Yum. I did eat lots of vegetables and other nutritious things, but the combination of incessant hunger from long workouts and my own callow indifference to my arteries left me with no motivation to avoid unhealthy foods. I wondered why Fischer was different.

When I interviewed her, I learned that the Food and Society class never mentioned the health benefits of veggies. Instead, the instructors, nutrition scientists Thomas Robinson, MD, and Christopher Gardner, PhD, tried to get students to question whether their diet choices lined up with their values. And Fischer did that, as my story explains:

She was worried about California’s extreme drought, and after a class discussion of the carbon emitted and water used in livestock production, she wondered out loud to a friend if she could eat vegetarian for a week. Her friend said, 'There’s no way, Meef. I’d literally give you until dinnertime.'

The dare was impossible to resist. 'It was hard at first; I was really hungry,' Fischer says. 'But I also like to challenge myself. I wanted to prove people wrong.'

Once she figured out what she should eat instead of meat, her new diet got easier. Her coach — initially alarmed by her sudden vegetarianism — calmed down after Fischer got advice from a nutritionist in Stanford’s athletics department. Her performance on the water didn’t suffer. To her surprise, Fischer realized she wanted to stay vegetarian.

In the year since she first took her vegetarian dare, Fischer has learned that meat consumption is associated with greater risks for cancer and heart disease. The health benefits of her new diet have become a reason to stick with it. 'But health alone wouldn’t have been an incentive for me to start,' she says.

Fischer isn't alone; Robinson and Gardner have published research showing that many students in their Food and Society class made healthy diet changes. And their basic idea -- find something that motivates people to change their behavior, then hitch health benefits to it as a side effect -- works in lots of groups, not just college students, as the magazine story explains. If you've been wondering how to get yourself to eat better, it might even work for you.

Previously: Strive, thrive and take five: Stanford Medicine magazine on the science of well-beingStealth equals health, Engaging and empowering patients to strive for better health and Stanford grad students design new tools for learning about nutrition, feelings
Image by Christopher Silas Neal

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